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How to interview someone that you know

Andy Haywood our consultant managing the role
Andy Haywood our consultant managing the role
Posted: 01/09/2020

The life sciences industry relies upon the talents of often niche specialisms, where the number of qualified and experienced candidates can be limited. With a high demand for rare and specialised professionals, it is easy to get to know a lot of the names and faces within some sectors.

As an interviewer, you need to ensure you’re conducting fair and unbiased interviews not only hire the best candidates for the job, but also to avoid breaching employment laws. However, this can be become more complex when you have an existing knowledge or awareness of the candidates.

Firstly, how do you know the candidate?

We meet people in lots of ways within the industry. It is this level of relationship that will ultimately determine how best to address the interview:

  • Networking/Professionally

People you meet at industry events, through a company collaboration or perhaps they’re a respected name in the field, won’t necessarily create a conflict of interests. That said, depending on the closeness of your professional relationship, any prior relationship could invite some biases, so it’s important to remain consciously impartial.

    • Previous employer/employee

Having experience working with the candidate before will give you valuable insight into their performance, but may also complicate the interview process, as it will be more difficult to remain impartial.

    • Family or friend

This relationship is likely the most problematic for an interviewer. Whilst it is certainly possible to be impartial, this may be considered a conflict of interests and could lead to accusations of nepotism or bias. It’s important to follow procedures to protect yourself in this scenario.

  • Internal promotion

Perhaps someone from your team is going for a management role or someone from elsewhere in the business is looking to join your team. Depending on your close working relationship, you may find complications in remaining impartial, impacting the fairness of the process for you and your colleague.

Balancing the needs of the company, your responsibility as the interviewer and your connection to the person being interviewed can be a tenuous task. Here are some core considerations for how to interview someone that you know within life sciences:

1. Inform your HR team

It is best practice to tell your HR team if you are planning to interview a candidate that you have previous connections with. Even what you may consider to be an inconsequential connection can have ramifications, so it is best to protect yourself and ensure you have followed internal procedures.

Your HR teams will have a greater knowledge surrounding legal and ethical issues you may not be aware of and will protect you from potential conflicts of interest. Be honest about how you know the candidate and the extent of your relationship with them.

2. Assess whether your involvement is needed

How important is it that you conduct the interview? Is there someone else who could take the interview on your behalf? Even if you know you’d be fully professional, it may be easier to defer to colleague and avoid the potential pressures and awkwardness by not being involved.

If you do choose to conduct the interview, ensure you are with a colleague and a HR representative if possible. This will protect you and your friends from breaching company policy, as well as guarantee there is an impartial second opinion.

It is also worth considering the interviewees thoughts; interviews are stressful enough without the potential pitfalls of knowing your interviewer. Asking if they would be comfortable to be interviewed by you or offering an alternative interviewer could reduce some of this stress.

3. Establish boundaries early

Addressing the issue head on will be the quickest and most effective way to clarify the process and dispel any concerns about your involvement, as well as make clear that you will remain professionally impartial.

Give a clear explanation on:

  • How you will conduct the interview
  • How they will be assessed
  • Who will be involved in the decision-making
  • How your existing relationship will (or rather will not) impact the proceedings
  • The post-interview process and that you will not be able to influence the outcome

Be honest and upfront about your relationship with them and address the elephant in the room. Perhaps give them an alternative interviewer option if it is a friend or an existing colleague. This should relieve tension and set the tone for an impartial and hopefully positive experience for you both.

4. Examine your biases and ethical dilemma

Prepare your response to scenarios before going into the interview. How will you react if they keep bringing up your relationship to them or if they reference personal issues you have a connection to?

Highlight areas where your relationship with the candidate could put you in an ethical quandary. For example, if you know the candidate is underselling their skills or not using an example that would help their cause, would you raise this? Would it be unfair to say something on their behalf or to lead the questioning to give them an advantage?

Conversely, what if you know them to always be late to social events outside of work, could that create an unfair bias against their professional performance? What if they say something you believe to be untrue? Would you call them out? Could it be your unconscious bias?

A useful question to ask yourself to avoid bias is “would you ask this to another candidate?”. A second opinion is always useful to protect your and your friend’s interests. You can defer to them to help you avoid these ethical issues.

5. Evidence over experience

A sure-fire way to protect yourself from any accusation or bias based on assumption from your existing relationship, is to ensure that you have evidence for anything you inherently believe about the candidate.

You may know the interviewee has exceptional leadership qualities from working together previously or from how they’ve lead teams outside of a working environment. However, without tangible evidence of this in the interview, you open yourself to criticism on your judgement.

Whilst it would be unethical to ask leading questions, the responses they give will be more valuable to the interview assessment.

6. Prepare for the conclusion

One of the pitfalls of interviewing someone you know, is the inevitable questioning of the result. Having established boundaries early on, you should be in a good position, but it is useful to have responses ready.

If the candidate is unsuccessful, there may be impacts to your relationship outside of work, or even a complaint about your involvement. Be sure to communicate the decision process with your friend and be transparent about your involvement in any decision-making processes.

If the person you know is successful, you may have colleagues or other interviewees question the legitimacy or fairness of your interview. Even if you’ve followed all the procedures or even had a HR representative take over the process.

Address concerns of your teams ahead of time and create a positive narrative about the new employee. Keep an open door to discuss any concerns that come up and keep an eye out for how the team dynamics are affected.

Ultimately, the life sciences industry is fuelled by networking and collaboration. Having trusted and proven professionals on your team is a bonus and, although there may be some ethical issues to be aware of, having a previous relationship with people joining your team can be a huge advantage to productivity and success.

Provided you keep an impartial position and follow procedures, interviewing someone you know can be no different than conducting an interview with a complete stranger.

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